The Silk Road: A New History

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The Silk Road is as iconic in world history as the Colossus of Rhodes or the Suez Canal. But what was it, exactly? It conjures up a hazy image of a caravan of camels laden with silk on a dusty desert track, reaching from China to Rome. The reality was different--and far more interesting--as revealed in this new history.

In The Silk Road, Valerie Hansen describes the remarkable archeological finds that revolutionize our understanding of these trade routes. For centuries, key records remained hidden-sometimes deliberately buried by bureaucrats for safe keeping. But the sands of the Taklamakan Desert have revealed fascinating material, sometimes preserved by illiterate locals who recycled official documents to make insoles for shoes or garments for the dead. Hansen explores seven oases along the road, from Xi'an to Samarkand, where merchants, envoys, pilgrims, and travelers mixed in cosmopolitan communities, tolerant of religions from Buddhism to Zoroastrianism. There was no single, continuous road, but a chain of markets that traded between east and west. China and the Roman Empire had very little direct trade. China's main partners were the peoples of modern-day Iran, whose tombs in China reveal much about their Zoroastrian beliefs. Silk was not the most important good on the road; paper, invented in China before Julius Caesar was born, had a bigger impact in Europe, while metals, spices, and glass were just as important as silk. Perhaps most significant of all was the road's transmission of ideas, technologies, and artistic motifs.

The Silk Road is a fascinating story of archeological discovery, cultural transmission, and the intricate chains across Central Asia and China.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
The Silk Road was never really a road at all, but rather a “stretch of shifting, unmarked paths across massive expanses of deserts and mountains” that carried a slow trickle of trade between the Near East and the Chinese empire over millennia. The arid conditions along the trail have helped preserve some of the greatest treasure troves of the ancient world, increasing our understanding of dozens of cultures. Hansen, an expert in early Chinese history at Yale, presents an erudite, scholarly look at artifacts as diverse as Buddhist sutras, ancient bills of sale, and even petrified dumplings, placing each in its proper context and building a detailed historical record drawing heavily on primary sources. At times too dry for general readers, this study may put off specialists with its lack of focus—Hansen touches on civil service examinations, prevailing stereotypes of Sogdian merchants, bans on religious practice, and sea trade with Southeast Asia in succeeding paragraphs—but the work does break new ground with its close textual analysis of so many original documents. Although trade on the road largely consisted of “impromptu exchanges of locally produced and locally obtained goods” (silk was one common currency; another was antelope skin), such exchanges played no small part in shaping the modern world. 19 color and 61 b&w illus., maps. (Aug.)
Library Journal
The term the Silk Road has always conjured up romantic notions of silks, spices, vast deserts, inhospitable lands, and camel caravans, merchants, and pilgrims traveling between East and South Asia and the Mediterranean world—all of which is valid. Hansen (history, Yale Univ.) examines the Silk Road through further research based on documents left behind by those who lived and died on this ancient cultural superhighway. Organizing the text around the seven Silk Road cities of Niya, Kucha, Turfan, Samarkand, Chang'an, Dunhuang, and Khotan, the author takes the position that the Silk Road was made up of local and small-scale trade, not the large commercial routes that we have come to associate with it. More significant, she writes, its true importance lies in the movement of ideas (especially those of immigrants) as they moved eastward and westward spreading their art, language, religion, and technology. VERDICT An impressively well-researched book exploring the documentation of many different cultures and people along the many routes known as the Silk Road. Readers of Asian or world history will learn much from and thoroughly enjoy this book.—Melissa Aho, Univ. of Minnesota Lib., Minneapolis
From the Publisher
"Richly illustrated, The Silk Road: A New History is a monumental work of synthesis... It is a celebration of the drudgery of sifting ancient trash, of the painstaking work of recovering multilingual documents found in fragments, clumps, and, at the Mogao Caves, one great bibliographical hoard... Whether in Sogdian, Khotanese, Kuchean, or Uighur — languages that make the discoveries of early Chinese texts seem almost pedestrian — it is the decipherment of these lost languages that allows Hansen to bring the Silk Road so fully to life.... Summarizing more than a century of research, it is unlikely to be surpassed till the discoveries of another generation demand incorporation." —Nile Green, Los Angeles Review of Books

"A much-needed critical synthesis of scholarship that will appeal to scholars, students, and general readers. [Hansen's] lively writing brings each town to life. The clear prose, numerous maps and illustrations, and animated tales of the Silk Road's travelers and explorers will make Hansen's book a classroom favorite."—CHOICE

"An impressively well-researched book exploring the documentation of many different cultures and people along the many routes known as the Silk Road. Readers of Asian or world history will learn much from and thoroughly enjoy this book." -Library Journal

"The Silk Road: A New well worth a serious look by historians of other regions and periods for its thoughtful and innovative consideration of the historical craft of turning the raw materials of many media into a compelling historical account." —Carla Nappi, Tang Studies

"This book meets the challenge of being lively, readable, and at the same time extremely learned and up-to-date. In all respects a success."—Etienne de la Vaissière, EHESS, Paris

"Valerie Hansen overturns the traditional view of the 'straight and well-travelled' Silk Road, as well as the notion that silk was of prime significance. Instead she reveals in detail the life, history, and culture of the different oasis centers of Central Asia, making the latest work by Chinese, Russian, Japanese, and other scholars available to us all. It is a triumph."—Frances Wood, Curator of the Chinese Collections, British Library

"Erudite and engaging, this is no romantic tale of the Silk Road. Hansen challenges many of the conventional narratives of the crossroads of Eurasia. In place of large long distance commercial caravans, she finds subsistence living and local barter. Instead of merchants, she finds the Chinese military played the most important role in bringing silk onto the Silk Road. But the region is no less fascinating for all her debunking of old tropes. She skillfully weaves ancient records with modern explorations of the Silk Road to bring that past alive, especially the tolerant religious diversity of the region before Islam came to dominate around the year 1000. A wonderful read that will send you packing your bags!"— Gray Tuttle, Columbia University

"Valerie Hansen's The Silk Road is the most readable and reliable historical account of the fabled trade routes that cut across the center of Eurasia in medieval times. Based upon original sources and the best scholarship, the author's narrative is enriched by first-hand investigations in the field and extensive examination of artifacts in numerous museums. Handsomely illustrated, this volume brings to life as never before the men and animals who travelled from one Central Asian oasis to the next, conveying goods, ideas, art, music, and religions."—Victor H. Mair, University of Pennsylvania

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780195159318
  • Publisher: Oxford University Press
  • Publication date: 8/14/2012
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 320
  • Sales rank: 496,363
  • Product dimensions: 6.30 (w) x 9.40 (h) x 1.10 (d)

Meet the Author

Valerie Hansen is Professor of History at Yale University. Her books include The Open Empire: A History of China to 1600, Negotiating Daily Life in Traditional China: How Ordinary People Used Contracts, 600-1400, Changing Gods in Medieval China, 1127-1276, and, with Kenneth R. Curtis, Voyages in World History

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Table of Contents



1. At the Crossroads of Central Asia: The Kingdom of Kroraina

2. Gateway to the Languages of the Silk Road: Kucha and the Kizil Caves

3. Midway Between China and Iran: Turfan

4. Homeland of the Sogdians, the Silk Road Traders: Samarkand and Sogdiana

5. The Cosmopolitan Terminus of the Silk Road: Historic Chang'an, Modern-day Xi'an

6. The Time Capsule of Silk Road History: The Dunhuang Caves

7. Entryway into Xinjiang for Buddhism and Islam: Khotan

Conclusion: The History of the Overland Routes through Central Asia



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